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Is Budget Deal the Right Choice?

Aired December 17, 2013 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on CROSSFIRE. One of the least productive Congresses in history finally does something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody's hell bent to get out of town.

ANNOUNCER: But is saying "yes" to the budget deal the wrong answer?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The choice between keeping the government open and screwing all those military retirees? Is that the right choice?

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Donna Brazile. On the right, S.E. Cupp. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat who supports the budget deal, and Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican who doesn't. Is the compromise budget deal a bad deal? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


DONNA BRAZILE, GUEST CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Donna Brazile on the left.

S.E. CUPP, CO-HOST: I'm S.E. Cupp.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, senators on different sides of today's budget deal vote.

For the, quote unquote, "least productive, do-nothing Congress," this was a big week. Thanks to Paul Ryan on the right and Patty Murray on the left, the budget deal cleared a major hurdle in the Senate this morning, and the final vote comes tomorrow.

It's not a great deal. It's arguably not even a good deal. And I understand why some Republicans are unhappy about it. But my theory is this. Voters would rather be angry with their representatives for doing something they don't like than for not doing anything at all. We'll see if our guests agree.

BRAZILE: S.E., after the fiscal cliff, the government shutdown, the Redskins losing, practically...

CUPP: Oh, boy.

BRAZILE: And we have a bipartisan budget deal that everyone should be proud of. It's not perfect, but we should be proud of.

CUPP: There we go.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana and Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

Donna, as our guest host tonight, I'll give you the first question.

BRAZILE: Well, Louisiana, Mississippi, we get alone. We're joined by the Mississippi River.

CUPP: Good.

BRAZILE: Senator Wicker, I know you don't like this deal. It's not a good deal for military families. But there are a lot of people in Mississippi hurting right now. Why are you going to oppose this good bipartisan deal?

SEN. ROGER WICKER (R), MISSISSIPPI: Well,, let me say, Donna, I liked your lead-in. My friend Lindsey Graham knows how to turn a phrase.

And I -- this is a compromise. I expected there to be a bunch of stuff in there I didn't like, but I really didn't think it would impact military retirees, single them out in the way it does.

And when I asked the question at the Wednesday briefing, some budget people came in. I said, "How would this affect a retired senior master sergeant? How much money would he lose per year?"

Well, they didn't know. They got back to me with the answer: $83,000 lifetime for an E-7 who retires, 120-something thousand for an officer.

BRAZILE: That's one percent of their pay, especially for people who are 62 years old, and it won't take effect until December 2015.

There's a bipartisan solution, again, to block this provision in the budget act. I think it's Section 403. Senator Sheehan has a bill that would even offset putting this provision -- taking this provision out. Will you support Senator Jeanne Shaheen?

WICKER: I -- I'd love to if we could get a vote on it. As a matter of fact, we tried this afternoon to table Harry Reid's filling of the amendment tree: files three sort of innocuous amendments, blocks every other amendment, which has been the story this year of the entire Senate.

And the Democrats, including my friend over here from Montana, did not allow us to offer an amendment that would have done exactly that.

CUPP: Well, Senator Tester, President Obama told you and your colleagues that he wanted extended unemployment benefits as part of this deal. And in fact, your likely 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton tweeted this today. She said what happens to kids and families cut from unemployment insurance and Food Stamps? They're too small to fail and deserve an equal chance to succeed.

You voted yes on this budget. How would you answer her Hillary Clinton's question?

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: Well, I think you both addressed it in your opening. This isn't perfect, by the way. I would have written it. Both Paul Ryan and Patty Murray have said that.

Bottom line is, I think this takes sequestration off the table which would have done draconian things to our military, education, research and development and a number of things, and moves the economy forward, moves the government forward in a way where there's more certainty.

To get back -- to get back to Senator Wicker's point. It's true; the amendment tree's full. And if we'd have pulled that amendment out and bring another amendment in, we change it, the house is gone. They won't be back for 25 days. It's not like it's going to be taken up again. It's not. We need to get some certainty, and that's what this does. It's a bipartisan agreement. You said it's better to do something that might not be perfect than do nothing at all. I agree.

CUPP: But it seems like you Democrats caved on that issue, that issue that was supposed to be incredibly important to Democrats.

TESTER: Now I think just as the military retirement issue that Senator Wicker talked about. The issue of unemployment compensation can be dealt with down the line. Harry's talking about bringing it up in January. I think we can deal with it then. If we've got the votes to get it passed, we can move forward in a constructive way.

BRAZILE: But Senator Wicker, you have to agree that we now have two years to talk about something else other than the budget, the budget, the budget.

And so over the next two years, we can talk about how to restore some of the cuts that have been really across the board, those sequester cuts. You opposed some of those sequester cuts.

WICKER: Absolutely.

BRAZILE: You come from a state with a large number of people living in poverty, a lot of kids who depend on Head Start and other programs. In the -- in the spirit of Christmas, how do we -- we stop this Scrooge-enomics from occurring, you know, to the unemployed and also others who are hurting at this hour?

WICKER: Well, I think the provisions have to be across-the-board and fair, not hit anybody really, really hard. But Jon just pointed out why it's going to be easier said than done to get rid of this military retirement tax penalty of $80,000 for an enlisted man.

He says we can go back and fix this unemployment insurance thing. You know, we're going to have something signed into law by the president of the United States by the end of this week. It's hard to change a statute, particularly when he wants to change one provision and those of us that want to protect the promise we made to military veterans, want to change that back.

It's easier said than done, and my fear is we're going to see 2014 and 2015, and this thing is going to go into effect and affect people that we made a promise to, that lived up to their end of the bargain and now we pull the rug out from under them.

TESTER: The other side of that issue is that today, unfortunately, we've got six folks that were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

If sequestration stays into -- in effect, the readiness, the equipment those troops get is going to be severely impacted. So you have to make the call. There's -- nothing's going to be perfect in this world. It's called compromise. And how we deal with this compromise is critically important. And I think that Ryan and Murray did a good job coming up with a compromise that we could live with.

CUPP: Well, let me ask you about some of that spending. Your colleague in the Senate, Tom Coburn released his wasteful spending book today. And I've got to tell you. I was a little shocked at some of the things that our government is spending money on. You can take a look right here.

A million dollars to study romance in novels and movies. Three hundred eight-five thousand to study the oddity of duck penises. That's right. Three million for NASA to investigate how Congress works. Make sense of that.

I mean, you've talked about defense cuts and keeping our military strong. How do we assume that you guys can make the right calls when this is the kind of stuff you're spending money on?

TESTER: This is the right step, because this empowers the appropriations committee to do their job, and they haven't been able to do their job for several sessions now.

This gives us the top-line figures to go in and determine where the waste, fraud and abuse is and make sure these programs are lean and mean.

We haven't had that ability before. We've just kind of been a CR rubber stamp to move forward. And that's not a way to run a government. And that's why this budget deal need to move forward. Whether it had some inadequacies or not, it was critically important that we move forward and deal with those crazy things that are out there.

CUPP: So you guys are going to go through Tom Coburn's wasteful spending book? He says you could eliminate $30 billion.

TESTER: Look, I appreciate Tom's wasteful spending book. I think we ought to look at the ones that he had written in for Montana. They had some merit, but the way they were written up by him looked pretty awful. They can go into those budgets now and cut out the fat and weed it down. We're all concerned about the budget. We don't want to have a 16, $17 trillion deficit passed on to our kids.

WICKER: One of the reasons I have to agree with you on the appropriation. I used to be on the appropriations committee in the house, and actually, when they get a chance to do something other than a C.R., a continuing resolution, they can pick and choose, and they haven't been able to do that the last four years.

TESTER: That's right.

BRAZILE: Well, isn't it morally wrong and economically stupid to allow $1.3 million Americans to spend this Christmas without getting the unemployment benefits? I'm going to harp on that, because I think it was -- it was stupid that that was, you know, somehow or another left off the table during the negotiations.

TESTER: We're going back to the regular statute on this that's been in effect for decades and decades. This -- this has been the longest period of time since 2007 when we've got exception to that. The recovery is weak, but I think it's time to go back to regular order on unemployment compensation, as we've done every time we've extended it. We've always gone back to the regular 27 weeks.

CUPP: Well, one thing the president might want to spend some money on is a strategy to save his second term. We'll be back with the poll numbers out today. Are they as devastating as I think they are? Stay tuned.


BRAZILE: Welcome back. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, senator Jon Tester and Roger Wicker.

We expect the Senate to approve the bipartisan budget deal tomorrow. Lots of people aren't happy with it, but there's an old saying. I could have come up with a better agreement all by myself, but unfortunately, there was somebody sitting across the table.

When somebody's sitting across the table, you have to compromise. The thing is, you can tell how much the economic debate has moved to the far right when Paul Ryan, the guy Governor Romney chose to be his running mate, the guy who he showed -- to show off his severely credentials -- severely conservative credentials, well, let me just tell you, Paul Ryan is now seen as the reasonable moderate deal maker. The Republicans just keep moving the marker.

Senator Wicker, you know, there's a little fight right now in the Republican family. I'm giving S.E. a couple of aspirins.

WICKER: Join the club.

BRAZILE: Look, S.E., I've been giving her aspirins. I believe I'm going to move to something stronger as soon as Jon Tester will give me something. But you've got to tell us what's going on? I mean, the Republicans are now upset with the Paul Ryan and John Boehner. Are you upset with them, as well?

WICKER: Well, they didn't seem that upset in the House. I think everybody voted for it over there except for about 90 votes.

Listen, I like and admire Paul Ryan. I wanted to make him vice president of the United States. And I think he'd make a good president.

CUPP: Amen.

WICKER: I think John Boehner has done an admirable job in a very tough crowd. I don't want to harp on this one provision with the military. But here's what I don't think they thought about.

They made all these tough choices. And they made all of them prospective except for one. And that's what they did to the military retirees. Maybe we can go back and fix it, but that's my objection.

I don't -- I don't really mind the fact that Paul Ryan and John Boehner had to make some very tough choices, and I think it was a good idea, probably, to save money on the mandatory side, put a little money on the appropriations side and get us past this government shutdown. We're still not quite there yet. We've still got to pass bills.

BRAZILE: So you'll join -- so you believe John Boehner is right to tell these outside groups to just shut up, butt out and take it easy?

WICKER: I think -- I think John Boehner made a very good point.

CUPP: All right. Senator Tester, I want to move off the budget just for a minute and do broad scope politics. The president's trust, when it comes to the economy, is shot. Take a look at this poll out today.

A year ago, his handling of the economy polling at 54 percent. Now, 41. Not only is the president down 13 points, but Republicans are up nine. How do you explain that?

TESTER: Well, I think, look, there's some good things happening in the economy, S.E. You know that. I mean, unemployment is down to 7 percent. And that's not acceptable --

CUPP: That's what I keep hearing. The economy is great.

So, where are these numbers coming from?

TESTER: I think -- I think it came out because of the rocky rollout of the health care bill. But the bottom --

CUPP: But why would -- let me just add, why wouldn't people trust him less on the economy because of a rocky Web site?

TESTER: Well, I think -- I think it blends across all issues.

CUPP: So then, wouldn't you be concerned that Obamacare is going to hurt you guys?


BRAZILE: No, no --


CUPP: I'm having trouble following this train of thought then.

TESTER: We've got 10, 11 months -- 10, 11 months in politics is a lifetime. And I'm telling you -- look, look at the first of October how things have changed between the first of October when the Tea Party Republicans were pushing the shutdown. The whole Republican brand went down.

Guess what? You got a rocky rollout of Obamacare, of health care. They go up, Democrats go down.

This surge is going to happen between now and election daytime and time again. Bottom line is this -- in Congress, we need to focus on moving the economy forward. They need to focus on doing the things we need to get certainty so businesses create jobs. If we do that, the unemployment issue goes away. And everybody is happy.

And I will tell you that everybody can get credit for this if we work together, both Democrats and Republicans. And then, may the best man win come November.

CUPP: So, you're not worried President Obama's approval numbers are going to affect Democrats --

TESTER: No, not all.

In my election in 2012, the folks, the third party, dark money, whatever you want to call it, they tried to tie me to President Obama time and time again. He isn't exactly endeared in Montana. It didn't work.

Bottom line is we're all individuals. We all represent great states. We work for this country, and we just need to do the right thing, move the country forward.

And we will see incredible growth, because I've said from the get-go, the biggest boat anchor on this economy is Congress, doing nothing, obstructionism, filibusters, time and time again.

Now, we're starting so see some things move. Hopefully, we'll get a farm bill right out of the first year. It should have been done six months ago, but what the heck. We'll get it right done --

CUPP: Hey, one step at a time.


TESTER: Exactly. Get the budget done, and I think it starts to give people confidence back in their government.

BRAZILE: Senator Wicker, as you well know, there's a civil war brewing inside the Republican Party, almost, almost as big as the last civil war. CUPP: Oh, come on. That's not true.

BRAZILE: I'm exaggerating a little bit myself.

WICKER: This is wishful thinking on your part.

BRAZILE: It's the season of wishes. (INAUDIBLE) honest wish. Let me give Santa everything I have.

So, I mean, Mitch McConnell has an opponent on the far right. Lindsey Graham has an opponent. And, of course, your colleague and someone I also consider a friend, Thad Cochran has an opponent on the far right.

So, you have all these Republicans now pointing at senators, calling them RINOs, Republicans in name only. Is it going too far? Is there a purity test now in the Republican Party that some of your colleagues cannot meet?

WICKER: The people who say that about those three senators are -- yes, they're going too far. But I don't know that that means there's a civil war. You know, it's a free country, and it doesn't cost much to file for senator. So you can't blame somebody for giving it a shot.

I think all three of those, Cochran, McConnell and Graham will be re- nominated, and when they are, they'll be reelected.

So, you know, this sort of thing happens.

BRAZILE: So, you're not afraid that this civil war -- I still believe it's a civil war because you have the far right now pointing fingers at the so-called conservatives. So, I never thought I would see this day.

Are you sure that your colleagues can somehow or another beat back this challenge from the far right?

WICKER: Wish on. Let's go back to the poll on the front page of "The Washington Post". This is shaping up to be a disastrous 10 months coming up for the Democratic Party. And it may be partly -- it may be partly six-year itch, which happens to presidential terms, but I think it comes back to Obamacare.

It's not just the rollout, it's a broken promise -- you can keep your policy, period. And, you know, to the extent that we break a solemn promise like that, it's been done in other administration.

TESTER: I would -- I would --

BRAZILE: Senator Tester knows that these waters may be turbulent but most Democrats will be able to survive.

TESTER: I honestly think that it -- and this is a fact. I honestly believe when the health care bill come November, it's going to be a plus for Democrats. Why? Because the Web site is working. You're going to see people get on and actually save money. It does some real positive things for access. It does positive things for hospitals, especially rural hospitals that won't have to be giving out as much charity care.

I think when this gets done, the people are going to see the real advantage of it.

In the meantime --

CUPP: But, Senator Tester, isn't it dependent upon getting young, healthy people on? And they're not getting on the Web site.

President Obama is losing millennials in droves. They're moving to the center. They're not impressed with Washington or President Obama. It's not just a problem for Obamacare in that sign-up. It is a problem for the Democratic Party that's a key demographic for you guys.

TESTER: I think it's too early to say that. You know, and I meet with young people a couple times a month. To talk about and I am encouraged by their perspective and their world view. I think they're going to sign up when they find out what the costs. We're talking about bills less than a cell phone bill.

CUPP: But they're more than they were paying before.

TESTER: They weren't paying anything.

CUPP: Exactly.

BRAZILE: They were freeloading --


TESTER: They're more responsible than that.

CUPP: You have to convince -- no, you have to convince the demographic to buy something they've never traditionally bought, and for more than they would have before.

How does that work?

TESTER: You can help with that, S.E.

CUPP: I will not help with that.

TESTER: I'm talking about the facts as it applies to health care. You can't have health care delivered by emergency rooms and have that be sustainable for folks who don't have insurance and don't pay their bills. I can give you an example of plenty of folks out there that have -- I've got family of four that save 500 bucks a month -- 500 bucks a month when they went on the Web site and got it.

WICKER: Jon, when it is all said and done, there are still going to be 30 million Americans uninsured. And I don't know what rural hospitals you're talking to. But the ones I talk to from Mississippi are apoplectic -- CUPP: Yes.

WICKER: -- about what this health care law.

TESTER: I can tell you that the rural hospitals and their charity care will put them out of business and they know it under the current system. That's what this health was about.


BRAZILE: Still, 200,000 people in Mississippi who can get access to health care if we expand the eligibility for Medicaid in Mississippi. So, we need to help them out, too.

CUPP: OK. We're going to see how this all plays out. We've got nine months.

Stay here.

Next, the final question for both of our guests.

We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Will Congress be more or less productive next year? Tweet more or less using #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.


CUPP: We're back with Senators Tester and Wicker.

Now, it's time for the final question -- Donna.

BRAZILE: Senator Tester, I'm an old school Democrat. I miss Ted Kennedy. And I believe President Obama will come back next season.

But let me ask you. There is a lot of talk these days about economic populism on the left. Can you tell us what's happening in the Senate right now?

TESTER: Well, I can tell you this. We can -- we can give all sorts of different folks labels on what they need to do. Bottom line is I think we need to go forth with policies. As I said earlier, not only moved business ahead, give them opportunity to create employment. But also take care of the folks that are most needy.

I saw what the House did to the farm bill. I'm still a farmer. And just split the nutrition title away from the commodities title, and then -- it doesn't work. It doesn't work for agriculture, whether you're in production ag, and it doesn't work for the folks who need help.

And so, I think you need to look at it. Put the titles to the side. Take a look at the program that's out there. What needs to be done to help people move forward -- whether it's in food, education, business, whatever it might be.

CUPP: Senator Wicker, let me give you compliments -- or compliments to your wife on an excellent Christmas tie.

WICKER: Thank you.

CUPP: She did a great job. We like that one.

Listen, with the poll numbers the way they are, Obama is down. Republicans are creeping their way back up. Do you think it's wise as Donna would say for conservatives to target other conservatives? Shouldn't this be a time when we're coalescing and building on this momentum going into 2014? Talking about it all the things that we agree on.

WICKER: I do not think it is wise for conservatives to target each other.


WICKER: And have a circular firing squad.

CUPP: How do we convey that message to some folks who would seemingly prefer --

BRAZILE: This is the time I want to give you some ammunition.

CUPP: To argue.

WICKER: It's a free country. People can file for primaries.

But I do think when you have incumbents that are strong and have a real mainstream voting record, as conservatives, it doesn't make sense.

CUPP: Why haven't we found a by to celebrate our intellectual diversity as a big tent party?

WICKER: Well, there are a lot of viewpoints out there. I was hoping to get back to Jon's question about the productivity of the Congress, maybe next time.

CUPP: Maybe next time is right. Thanks to Senators Jon Tester and Roger Wicker. We appreciate it.

Go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question. Will Congress be more or less productive next year? Right now, 32 percent of you say more, yikes, 68 percent say less. Sorry, Senators.


CUPP: The debate continues online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

BRAZILE: I'm Donna Brazile from the left.

CUPP: From the right, I'm S.E. Cupp.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.